Having proved that a favorable ruling (grace) in the divine court could not be obtained by presenting one's own works, but that such grace can only be attained through faith in Christ, Paul then proceeds to tell us what we have actually received by faith.
Romans 4 is Paul's great discussion on the imputation of righteousness, where God calls what is not as though it were. He has already made reference to the Day of Atonement in 3:25, speaking of the blood of the goat that was sprinkled on the mercy seat as a "propitiation" (expiation) for our sin. But Romans 4 enlarges upon this idea, showing us the underlying implications of it. Romans 4, then, is the main New Testament exposition of the work that Jesus did on the cross, which fulfilled the prophecy of the goat that was killed on the Day of Atonement.
1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found?
Abraham is the father of faith, so we must again turn to Abraham to see what his faith achieved.
2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God.
Paul already made the point in 3:27 that no man has grounds to boast about his great achievements in following the Law. All have sinned, and the Law cannot justify any sinner, not even Abraham.
3 For what does the Scripture say? "And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned [logizomai] to him as righteousness." 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.
Paul compares the laborer with the unemployed. A worker deserves to be paid, and the employer owes wages to his employees. But if an unemployed man is given alms, it is done as a "favor."
Paul quotes Gen. 15:6 to show that God's favor, or grace, was extended to Abraham, not because of his works, but on the grounds of his faith. Faith is simply a matter of believing what God has said.
Faith and Belief
The Greek word pistis is a noun that means "faith." The verb form is pisteuo, which we translate as "believe," because in English we do not use "faith" as a verb. (We say "I believe you," not "I faith you.") Some have tried to make a distinction between faith and belief, when in fact they come from the same Greek word. The only difference is that one is the noun and the other is the verb. Hence, Abraham "believed" God, because he had "faith."
To Reckon, Count, or Impute
The next most important Greek word to understand is logizomai, translated "reckoned." The KJV translates it in various ways: "reckoned" (4:4); "counted" (4:3, 5), and "imputed" (4:6, 8). Paul uses this word 15 times in Romans 4, but its real definition is given in verse 17, where God calls what is not as though it were.
Paul uses David as a second illustration of how righteousness is imputed by faith.
6 just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: 7 "Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. 8 Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account."
This is taken from Psalm 32:1, 2, quoting from the Septuagint Greek translation. The Septuagint was the standard showing how Hebrew words were expressed in Greek. So whereas the Hebrew word for "reckon" is khashav, the Septuagint translates this word as logizomai. This is true for both Gen. 15:6 and Psalm 32:1, 2.
So Paul shows us that not only Abraham, but David too spoke of reckoning men righteous. David defines it (Rom. 4:8) as "the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account." David acknowledges that man is yet sinful, but somehow the Lord does not take it into account. He "forbears" or "tolerates" it in the sense that Paul mentions earlier in 3:25. On what grounds? Because his "sins have been covered" (4:7).
In other words, it is all about the covering, or "atonement," of sin. The Hebrew word kaphar means to "cover." In fact, our English word "cover" is derived from the Hebrew kaphar. The Day of Atonement, then, is the day when the blood of the first goat was sprinkled on the mercy seat in order to "cover" our sin. David said that a man was "blessed" when his sin was covered, because God then did not "take into account" his sin.
To impute, reckon, or account is a marvelous provision of God and is an important feature of the Law of Faith. By faith our sin is covered by the blood of Jesus that was shed on the cross.
Yet to really understand this concept, we must also understand that there was a second goat whose job it was to remove sin. (See Lev. 16:20-22.) By seeing the contrasting works of the two goats, we understand the two comings of Christ. His first coming was as the first goat to cover our sin and impute righteousness to us, calling what is not as though it were. His second coming is as the second goat to remove sin from us and make us actually perfect.
Righteousness Imputed to Abraham
Paul continues his discussion in verse 9,
9 Is this blessing, then, upon the circumcised [only], or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say, "Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness." 10 How then was it reckoned? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised.
Abraham was circumcised in Gen. 17:24,
24 Now Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.
But God imputed righteousness to him by faith many years earlier in Gen. 15:6 before he had any children. Since Ishmael was born when Abraham was just 86 (Gen. 16:16), the promise obviously came prior to that time. In fact, the context shows us that it was precisely because he had no children that he was concerned about the promises of God being fulfilled. He confided to God in Gen. 15:2 that he was childless, and the only heir at the time would have been Eliezar of Damascus, his steward.
God then told him to count the stars and said, "So shall your descendants be" (Gen. 15:5). That is what Abraham believed when God reckoned him righteous in verse 6. So Abraham was reckoned righteous long before his circumcision, Paul says:
11 and he received the sign [semeion] of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be reckoned to them, 12 and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised.
In other words, circumcision was a "sign," not the actual righteousness itself. It testified outwardly of an inner condition of faith. But, of course, many are circumcised (both Muslims and Jews) who do not have faith in the sacrificial work that Jesus Christ did on the cross. For such people, their faith is in their own works and their ability to submit to God fully. Their faith is based upon the Old Covenant, which cannot save them.
Circumcision is a testimony of an inward faith, but not all such people testify of their true inward condition. One must also "follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham" to have a valid outward testimony.
Abraham preceded Moses and the Old Covenant, even though he was the first to receive the sign of the circumcision. Yet that circumcision did not justify Abraham, nor did it make him righteous. It was a matter of obedience AFTER he had already been justified by faith.
Moses Justified by Faith
So also with Moses and all others. How were they justified? They were all justified only on account of their faith. No one was ever justified by their works. There was nothing wrong with committing one's self to follow the Law, as long as it was understood that it was their prior faith that had justified them. It was only when men came to depend upon their own decision, their own will, their own self-discipline, their own fleshly ability to perform their good intentions, that their justification came to depend upon the works of the Law.
They should have understood that the Law was given many weeks after they left Egypt. In other words, Passover (faith in the blood of the Lamb) came first, and only later were they given the Law at Sinai on the day that was later celebrated as Pentecost. Passover justifies us; Pentecost teaches us obedience by the leading of the Spirit.
Judaism does not understand this, and that is their downfall to this day. Judaism is of the opinion that if they can just be zealous enough in keeping the Law, that God will view them with favor, give them grace, and justify them in the Divine Court—that is, rule in their favor. Paul refutes this, saying in Romans 4:14,
14 For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified.
Judaism is of the opinion that those "who are of the Law are heirs." Paul insists that to be an heir (of the promise), one must be of faith. To put it another way, being an heir is not about being of Moses, but being of Abraham. Moses has his place, as does the Law, but to make him the justifier is to misplace him in the divine plan.
How the Law Brings Wrath
15 For the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
Some interpret Paul's statement to mean that God gets angry any time someone tries to be obedient to the Law. But that is not what Paul meant. The Law brings "wrath," not because we are obedient, but because we are all disobedient (i.e., sinners). The Law cannot be happy with any man in his sin.
But our justification is based on Passover, apart from the Law given at Pentecost. It is purely by faith—even before we have begun to learn obedience. We get righteous standing up front, even before our character has been changed by the Holy Spirit's leading and guidance. So Paul takes the basic axiom of truth, "where there is no law, neither is there violation," and applies it to the feast of Passover. Since Passover took place prior to the giving of the Law, our righteousness is faith-based, apart from the Law, and hence, we are not charged with the violation of the Law (sin).
16 For this reason it is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace, in order that the promise may be certain to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.
His point here is to show the universal application of grace. This contrasts with the Judaistic view that they alone were the heirs of the promise, on the grounds that they were given the Law. Their view was that other people were inferior in their ability to understand the Law. Hence, they said, the ethnos only had to follow the so-called "Noahide Laws" of Gen. 9:1-7, for that was the extent of their spiritual capacity.
Paul contradicts that, showing that any man can be an heir of God through Christ. One does not have to be a genealogical descendant of Abraham. Faith makes one a "son of Abraham."
Imputing Children to Abraham
Romans 4:17 is not translated properly in the NASB, so I will quote from The Emphatic Diaglott:
17 as it has been written, "A Father of Many Nations [ethnos] I have constituted thee"—in the presence of that God whom he believed, who makes alive the dead, and calls things not in being, as though existing.
The first part of verse 17 quotes from Gen. 17:5. This was the promise to Abraham, that he would be a father of many ethnos. This has been fulfilled on many levels, but Paul brings this up as proof that the promise applies even to the nations that had not received the Law and to those who were not genealogically descended from Abraham.
In other words, the idea of a "chosen people" is applicable to any man who follows Abraham's example of faith, regardless of genealogy. The terms "father" and "son" have greater meaning than just in a genealogical sense. There were children of wisdom, children of light, children of the devil, and the sons of thunder. So also are there children of Abraham, if they follow the example of Abraham's faith.
The last half of verse 17 above is Paul's definition of logizomai, "to impute, reckon, account." When God gave this promise to Abraham, he had only one son, Ishmael (Gen. 16:16), born to him at the age of 86. Abraham was 99 years old when God gave him this promise (Gen. 17:1). And because we read later (Gen. 21:12) that "through Isaac shall your descendants be named," we know that the promise was to be fulfilled through Isaac, not through Ishmael.
18 in hope against hope he believed, in order that he might become a father of many nations, according to that which had been spoken, "So shall your descendants be."
The promise came before Isaac was even born, and long before Abraham had become the father of many nations. In other words, God was calling what was not as though it were. This is the nature of imputed righteousness. We obtain the promise of righteousness by faith up front long before we are actually made righteous. He imputes righteousness to us in the same manner as He did with Abraham. And this is illustrated by the fact that He imputed many nations to Abraham long before the fact.
19 And without becoming weak in faith, he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah's womb; 20 yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief, but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, 21 and being fully assured that what He had promised, He was able also to perform.
The promise seemed impossible to fulfill, and Abraham was fully aware of the condition of his own body and that of Sarah. But Abraham "laughed" with joy at the promise, as we read in Gen. 17:17,
17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, "Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?
Many have the impression that Abraham laughed as if God were telling a joke. They think Abraham did not really believe it. But Abraham DID believe it. He laughed because of the irony of the situation. Is it not just like God to make it first impossible, and then to go ahead and do it? We can understand such laughter, because we ourselves have seen God work in such ways in our own lives. Believe me, we spend much time laughing when we share the things that God has done.
Abraham's faith in the promise of God was strong enough to overlook the deadness of his own body—and that of Sarah—so that he was confident that God was able to fulfill His promise in spite of its seeming impossibility.
For this reason (faith), God imputed righteousness to him, as we read in Romans 4:21, 22,
21 and being fully assured that what He had promised, He was able also to perform. 22 Therefore also it was reckoned [imputed] to him as righteousness.
God called what was not as though it were, calling Abraham righteous, by the same principle that he imputed many nations to him before the fact.
How Righteousness is Imputed to All
23 Now not for his sake only was it written, that it was reckoned to him, 24 but for our sake also, to whom it [righteousness] will be reckoned, as those who believe [have faith] in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 He who was delivered up because of our transgressions, and was raised up because of our justification.
So here Paul makes the application to us and our own positional righteousness with God. Even as with Abraham, we who have faith "in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead," are also called righteous. Our righteousness is imputed, even as Abraham's was imputed. It is not infused. It will take the second work of Christ to fulfill the prophecy of the second goat that removes sin (Lev. 16:20-22).